Have the Canucks Done Enough to Address Their Defence?

Updated: August 2, 2016 at 9:00 am by J.D. Burke

The Vancouver Canucks were among the league’s worst defensive teams last season no matter how you slice it. They finished in the bottom third of the league in every underlying shot-based metric worth paying attention to and 23rd overall in goals against per game.

Good luck convincing me they’re not aware of this on Pat Quinn Way, too. The wealth of resources they’ve pooled into addressing this ill suggests addressing it is paramount to their short term vision of competing for the playoffs next season.

The addition of Loui Eriksson, though mostly remarked upon for the goals added, will plug the first hole ageing has wrought on the Sedins’ game — defensive play. Philip Larsen’s zone exit and entry data would indicate he’s a sound bet to stretch the ice better than those who filled his role in the season prior. Erik Gudbranson should, in theory, make the Canucks a tougher team to play against and slow the opposition in the neutral zone.

And all this says nothing of the players entrenched in the Canucks system. Barring the dreaded ‘sophomore slump’ players like Ben Hutton, Nikita Tryamkin and Andrey Pedan could figure every bit as prominently as some of the players purchased to insulate them. At the end of the day, though, the Canucks have to ask themselves if that’s enough.

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I suppose the prescient question on the minds of Canucks fans is whether they will be able to sustain the loss of Dan Hamhuis. That’s a reality they encountered last season and not one that painted the sum of their remaining parts in an overly endearing light. Something I mused upon when floating the possibility of a Hamhuis return to Vancouver many months ago…

The difference between the Canucks lineup with Hamhuis as opposed to without is roughly the difference in quality between the Washington Capitals and Buffalo Sabres. Hamhuis’ injury was met with another wave of injuries to create a perfect storm effect, so I think this approach likely overstates his impact on the Canucks lineup from a possession standpoint. It’s not a perfect science, but reflective in some small way of his ability to keep the Canucks afloat at even-strength.

What this suggests is that the Canucks will be in tough to replace Hamhuis. Based on Trevor Linden’s comments about Hamhuis’ underlying, in-house data, this loss will be felt primarily at their blue line. 

Though I spent much of the season tracking zone entries, I can’t say the same of zone exits and entry denials. I’ve known for some time though that the Canucks place some amount of emphasis on this information.

Of less concern to the Canucks, but perhaps more relevant in the grand scheme of things is Hamhuis’ ability to impact Vancouver’s shot suppression in a positive way. Among Canucks defencemen, Hamhuis was their fourth best by Fenwick (42.48FA/60) and shot suppression (29.83) and third best by Corsi limitation (53.85).

One of the players often ahead of Hamhuis? Yannick Weber. An interesting find here, as I parsed the underlying data among Canucks defenders, was the largely positive impact Weber had from, surprisingly enough, the defensive zone. Weber, like Hamhuis, won’t be returning to the Canucks next season.

Now, a piece by piece evaluation doesn’t really serve the purposes of this article, nor the Canucks aim of limiting opposition offence. Let’s look at the mean suppression numbers of the incoming players, opposed to the ones leaving. 


Player CA60 CA60 Rel. FA60 FA60 Rel. xGA60 xGA60 Rel. GF%Rel. Team
Dan Hamhuis 53.85 -3.28 40.88 -1.16 2.41 -0.25 -0.4%
Matt Bartkowski 61.06 6.06 49.58 8.75 3.03 0.57 -7.5%
Yannick Weber 50.43 -0.48 42.14 1.21 2.58 0.12 -4.7%
Average 55.3 0.8 44.2 2.9 2.67 0.15 -4.2%


Player CA60 CA60 Rel. FA60 FA60 Rel. xGA60 xGA60 Rel. GF%Rel. Team
Philip Larsen (career numbers) 54.43 0.79 44.38 0.93 2.42 -0.19 -0.1%
Erik Gudbranson 55.89 5.98 44.75 6.33 2.56 0.35 -7.6%
Mean 55.16 3.39 44.57 3.63 2.49 0.08 -3.85%

A couple of things stick out, but the omission of Matt Bartkowski from the Canucks lineup being a massive positive, though not surprising, is staggering in its impact. Based on Jeremy Davis’ commentary on the season Bartkowski suffered, we should’ve expected nothing less.

Bartkowski is a nice guy, by all accounts a good teammate, and his mom is fantastic. However, this is a business, and removing Bartkowski is a clear cut case of addition by subtraction. It’s what is best for the team, and it’s likely that every other defenceman is going to benefit from by no longer playing with him.

Less surprising was Gudbranson’s profound struggles defensively. You might expect a player like Gubdranson — a stay-at-home defenceman — to look poor in the light of raw data, but focusing on suppression usually paints these players in a better light. That’s just not the case here. And while you’d like to think that playing alongside Willie Mitchell didn’t help the cause, and that’s certainly true, it’s not like he had a substantially positive impact on his other defensive partners, either.

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The hope is that Gudbranson, who was at his best with puck-moving defencemen, will benefit mightily as a result of playing alongside Hutton. Though Gudbranson can skate well for his size, he’s never been a particularly nimble or stout defenceman in the neutral zone — a statement confirmed, to some extent, by Corey Sznajder’s neutral zone data for the 2013-14 season. With the puck carrying responsibilities on Hutton’s stick, maybe those deficiencies are masked accordingly.

You’re asking a lot of a second-year defenceman in that instance, but that’s just the reality of the Canucks’ situation. The stagnating cap, dearth of usable financial resources and a logjam of depth have forced them to, essentially, hold tight with the blue line they had on the eve of free agency.

Based on assumptions we can reasonably infer based on the wealth of their historical data, it appears as though the players the Canucks brought in represent an ever so slight upgrade on the outgoing players. Gudbranson doesn’t come as advertised, but neither does Larsen, which is to his credit. They’re both in that age 24-30 sweet spot which the Canucks covet, too.

This very realistically could be enough to help the Canucks both in transitioning play out of their end and even suppressing opportunities therein. So much of this rests on the ability of their young players — and you can count Gudbranson and Larsen among them — taking that next step, though. The margin for error is wafer thin. Even a plateau in development and we might be looking at a repeat of last season.